Culture, commerce, compromise: Which way Guwahati? : Uddipana Goswami

Uddipana Goswami traces Guwahati’s journey towards consumerism and corruption and suggests culture and literature can save the city’s soul.

You could find salvation in Guwahati
for your consumerist soul, or lose
your self in the dark shadows
accentuated by its dazzling lights
I HAVE written many times about the many Guwahatis of the mind – how the city is its own place and yet, takes on a different meaning for the different people who live in it, write about it, and engage with it in various ways. In my childhood years, I was oblivious to the pains of growing up that my city, my sister, was going through.
Already a woman,
Wounded, shot, raped, violated,
Pretending to be a child
Holding hands
Leading me away from herself
So I would not feel
Your pain so early.

Much later, in an effort to understand her better, I followed the poet Nilim Kumar, as he
…flounders around
In alleys and footpaths, under sewers
In storehouses in the dark, amidst the cacophony of motor cars

I tried to acquire the same empathy which does not allow him to

…turn up his nose even at the maggots wriggling
On carcasses in alleys and sewers in the darkness
Beneath the footpaths…

Beneath her ‘layers of filth, a thousand years old’, I marvelled at Harekrishna Deka’s

Silent lover
Under a green veil of pat

I also tried to come to terms with the neurosis of Sushil Duara in Silabhadra’s ‘Smog’. In that short story, Duara cannot reconcile with the contemporary violent history of an insurgency-ridden Guwahati. The mindless violence that scars a familiar landscape drives him to insanity. I had also seen and felt this insanity, this paranoia, creep into the minds of many of the old inhabitants of the city. These are the middle class professionals like my parents who migrated from villages and mofussil towns, for whom security of life and property was of paramount importance. Anything that threatened to destabilise their carefully organised lives – be it insurgents who made political statements through bombs and bullets or the state’s armed forces stationed on the pavements outside their houses, leering at their girls  or slapping their boys just because they were walking by – seemed terrifying. They had come to Guwahati when it was still confined to the riverfront of Uzan Bazar or the bookshops of Panbazar or the commercial areas of Fancy Bazar; when places like Bamunimaidam, Beltola and Azara did not have concrete edifices but paddy fields and wetlands. Like the middle class everywhere, they gave the city the best and the worst – the narrow-minded spy-next-door as well as the greatest of emancipated literary minds, the habitual apathy of indolence as well as the mass participation in the Assam Movement of the 1980s.
A city is a living, breathing organism, and it will always have its inherent contradictions. During the last 15 years of self-imposed exile from the city, every time I have been back for any length of time, I could always feel these contradictions growing enormously. The last time – and the longest – I was here for more than a year at a stretch, I got to know the new Guwahati more closely. I saw how Guwahati was fast getting over its initial fears. There was just too much money (thanks to insurgency, counter-insurgency and what have you) and too many opportunities for Guwahatians to have any reason to complain against the State.
This time when I am back again to stay, I get to know that ‘New’ Guwahati is no longer the old address near Bamunimaidam where my bank has a branch. It is the Guwahati-Shillong (GS) Road with its swanky new look, multi-storied malls housing the largest brands, upmarket eateries and yuppy hangouts. The Chandmari flyover is no longer the mecca for all young lovers, there are other hangouts that ensure more privacy and intimacy. The people I meet ask each other ‘Where are you from?’ instead of ‘Whose house do you belong to?’ as was wont in a city where everybody seemed to know everybody else. Conversations veer around ‘Pizza Hut tonight or Khorika?’ instead of ‘Should we cook mas tenga today or simple alu pitika?’ After work, one friend does not remind the other it is his turn to bring home a ‘half’ today – because his wife was cooking pork and xukan mas for dinner and that was more than enough.
Guwahati today is no longer the city that could be your kin or your lover. It is an evolving urban sprawl, chaotic and mismanaged like any other. You could find salvation here for your consumerist soul, or lose your self in the dark shadows accentuated by its dazzling lights. What would the poet have to say today? I do not know, but I do feel that the key to Guwahati’s future course of development lies somewhere between poetry and politics, between culture and commerce.
As the gateway to the entire northeastern region, Guwahati needs to be many of the things we hate about it. Its commercial character is perhaps as much a result of natural evolution as of its centrality in the Northeast. After all, if Pantaloons opens a showroom beyond Ganeshguri and nearer to Shillong, we do find people coming down in droves from the neighbouring hill city, disembarking at the mall, going on a shopping spree and returning home the same day without entering the rest of the city. Guwahati has to cater to the region at large in the absence of a similarly large enough, similarly accessible urban centre elsewhere. For instance, the escalating sales of cars – 32,000 vehicles were reported by Seven Sisters Post as registered in Guwahati between 1 April and 30 September 2011 – are as much a result of demand within Guwahati city (witness its clogged roads and constant traffic jams) as of demand from all over the Northeast. If the smoke from these cars has clouded the city’s soul, the same smoke-screen of counter-insurgency money also envelops the entire region. In an effort to co-opt the revolutionary propensities of the disgruntled peoples of the region, the Indian State ensures a steady flow of finances – whether through official channels or unofficial – so that corruption and consumerism can overshadow cultural and ethnic aspirations.
The truth that the entire Northeast shares the same fate – thanks in large measure to insurgency, militarisation and misgovernance – is nowhere more clearly manifested than in the writings by authors in and from the region. Conflict is a common thread in most of these writings which are finally a means of coping with the violent and chaotic history of our times. As the city that reflects this commonality, as well as the setting that can give the penned-down collective experiences a commercial outlet, Guwahati then should also act as the literary and cultural hub for the region.
There is no escaping the truism that literary products are finally commodities to be traded in. The challenge is to provide them with an ideal locale where the trader (in this case, the publisher), the craftsperson (the author) and the consumer (the reader) can come together in synergy. The aim should be to give the publisher her profit, to ensure the author her due – both in terms of commercial success and a discerning audience – and to provide the reader with a platform where she can choose which product gives her the best value for money. All of this Guwahati can and should provide.
Many literary events in fact are being organised or are underway in Guwahati. The Anwesha Children’s Book Fair (6-8 November) brought together school children and teachers, publishers of children’s literature and readers of the same. While the North East Book Fair which started on 14 December will go on till 27 December, the North East Foundation is also planning a Guwahati Literary Festival on 6-8 January. All of these events have or will see participation by national and international literary organisations and individuals. At a time when the demand for the literature of the Northeast is on the rise, the city should try and cash in on such fairs and festivals to turn its image around. From being the corruption and commercial capital of the region, perhaps it is time now to establish Guwahati as the cultural and literary heart of the Northeast.

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